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Suicides raise questions on gun licenses

ARLINGTON -- Late one afternoon in January, Peter Hartzel stood in the basement firing range of the PSMG Gun Shop with a 9-millimeter Beretta in hand and a consuming darkness welling within.

Hartzel, a 29-year-old newspaper reporter with a history of mental illness, had nearly completed a three-day firearm safety course, required for a state license to carry or possess a gun. In his final hour of training, he was consistently hitting his target. Then he lifted the gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger, killing himself. "It was so quick," said Paul Giragosian, the Arlington gunshop owner who had been standing to Hartzel's left, and whose cheek was grazed by the bullet. "There was blood everywhere, but I forgot my pain. All I could feel was his pain."

The Jan. 24 suicide had a macabre parallel. Four years earlier, a 28-year-old man, also suffering from mental illness, had committed suicide in Giragosian's shop, shooting himself in the head during target shooting.

In both cases, Giragosian says he was not aware of the men's mental conditions.

Now, Giragosian faces possible loss of his firearms dealer's license after alleged code violations unrelated to the January suicide were discovered by Arlington town officials following the shooting. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also investigating and continuing a review of the 2005 theft of more than three dozen firearms from the store, according to officials.

Giragosian, owner of the only firearms shop in Arlington, says he is being made a scapegoat for the deaths. He denies the violations and is expected in Cambridge District Court today to contest the license revocation. Town officials say they are acting properly in light of the numerous code violations found, including Giragosian's failure to report stolen firearms, use of combustible soundproofing, and improper storage of a propane tank.

More fundamentally, the suicides highlight what some say is a flawed sequence in the process of obtaining a firearm license in Massachusetts.

The first step is enrolling in a firearm safety course. There, an applicant is permitted to handle firearms during target shooting under the supervision of a certified instructor. After completion of the course, an individual then applies to the chief of the local police department for a firearm license. An applicant must disclose in writing whether he or she has been convicted criminally, confined in a mental health institution or undergone substance abuse treatment.

Police then check criminal records and information from the state Department of Mental Health. A final review is conducted by the state Criminal History Systems Board.

Some say that allowing individuals to take the firearm safety course before they've undergone screening gives troubled people an opportunity to commit suicide.

"The police should check records before people come to me," Giragosian said.

Frederick Ryan, Arlington police chief, who is seeking to revoke Giragosian's license, agrees. "A better alternative might be that individuals go through the screening process before the gun safety course," Ryan said.

State officials respond that the classes are taught by certified instructors.

"Individuals who are handling weapons are overseen, even though they themselves might not be licensed," said Erin Deveney, general counsel for the Criminal History Systems Board, an arm of the Executive Office of Public Safety.

Calls seeking comment to the National Rifle Association and the Massachusetts Gun Owners' Action League were not returned last week.

Giragosian, 60, emigrated from Syria in 1969 and opened his shop on Park Avenue in Arlington in 1976. Along with the two suicides, in March 2004 a woman threatened suicide by demanding a gun and saying she would shoot herself. Giragosian refused to provide her with a firearm and called authorities.

On Dec. 13, 2002, Chris Chao, a 28-year-old Arlington man, walked into his store wearing a black J. Crew jacket and a smile.

"Laughing and joking," Giragosian said in describing Chao's demeanor to police in a statement given that day.

Chao had already been trained in firearm safety by Giragosian several months earlier, and was now asking for another target practice session. When Giragosian asked to see Chao's firearm license, Chao answered that he had been working too hard to retrieve it from the police station, Giragosian said. While Giragosian was upstairs talking to a customer, according a police report, Chao shot himself in the head with the .45 caliber firearm he had requested.

Unbeknownst to Giragosian, Chao had been granted a firearm license on Nov. 2, 2001, but Arlington police had revoked it a day later after his parents reported to police that their son was suicidal, according to a police report.

The police report states that Chao had attempted suicide several times and had been involuntarily committed twice.

Town officials say that the police did not inform Giragosian the reason for the license revocation because the department was bound by confidentiality restrictions. However, Giragosian's attorney, Dean Carnahan, contends that confidentiality had been waived when Chao was required to divulge his mental health history record as part of his license application.

In Hartzel's case, his father, Peter, said his son's mental illness had surfaced when he was a student at Trinity College in Hartford. The Dedham native had been a reporter for a number of local papers. More recently, Hartzel said his son's condition had declined and he had returned to live at home.

Peter Hartzel said he and his wife constantly worried for their son but never saw overt indications that he was contemplating suicide. They did not know he had enrolled in a firearms safety course. "That certainly would have been a tipoff," Hartzel said.

Hartzel said he does not blame Giragosian for his son's death. But he questions why the system allowed his son to enroll in firearms training without being vetted.